Capacity Building Tips for a Stronger Nonprofit

A Crowded Field

The National Center for Charitable Statistics’ website reports that Massachusetts has 19,037 nonprofits who reported financial information to the IRS in 2008, 34.4 nonprofit organizations for every 10,000 residents. Rhode Island, surprisingly, had almost a quarter as many – 4349 or 47.4 per 10,000 population. Neither of these rates compares favorably with large conservative states like Texas (20.3) or even other, larger liberal states like New York (28.4) or California (22.6). New England seems to grow nonprofits almost twice as fast as everybody else.If there are too many organizations chasing too few donor dollars, then the nonprofit sector may have entered a survival-of-the-fittest period. A crucial concern for individual nonprofit leaders and Boards then becomes how to survive.

Doing Better

From their recent announcements it would appear that at least one part of The Boston Foundation and United Way Rhode Island’s answer is to advise nonprofits to do better before they do more. And how will financially struggling organizations find out how to “do better” by improving their capacity? By finding out what they don’t know about their capacity through completing an organizational self-assessment and then doing something to address the findings.

Building the frame for a stronger organization.

The good news for cash-strapped nonprofits is that easy-to-access tools are readily available on the World Wide Web. Two in particular are free, can be downloaded for use by Board members, executive leaders and senior staff, and don’t require a statistical degree to fill out and interpret.

Free Tools

The Marguerite Casey Foundation Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool was one of the first such instruments to be developed. The foundation website accurately describes it as a “self assessment instrument that helps nonprofits identify capacity strengths and challenges and establish capacity building goals”. Conveniently arranged on a self-scoring spreadsheet, the assessment’s 59 capacity elements are divided into four parts: Leadership Capacity; Adaptive Capacity; Management Capacity, and Operational Capacity. It takes about an hour to fill out thoughtfully, and the foundation website then provides a helpful numerical score and graph. Local leaders and Board members can inexpensively obtain some penetrating insights by investing an hour on the Casey Capacity Assessment Tool and comparing their scores.

If the Casey Tool looks too complicated, then a good alternative, also free on the web, is the “Nonprofit Organization Self- Assessment Tool” developed by Technical Assistance for Community Services in Portland Oregon. TACS’s tool asks nonprofit leaders to answer qualitatively (don’t know; inadequately achieved; partially achieved; or fully achieved) ninety questions arranged in 7 focus areas: Board Governance; Planning and Evaluation; Financial Management; Personnel Management; Public and Community Relations; Financial Condition; and Funding Strategies. Again, nonprofit leaders will learn quite a bit about their organizations with a little introspection and a lot of honesty.

Looking Better

Completing either the Casey self-assessment or the TACS self-assessment isn’t likely to automatically advance a nonprofit to the head of grantee line with either The Boston Foundation or United Way of Rhode Island. It will, however, give leaders challenging new insights about their organizational capacity. Combined with a strategic planning process and an action plan for change, it’s also likely to both position their organization to survive the hard times and to look better to potential donors in the future.

-Christian Dame

Christian W. Dame, Partner, IES

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